The Sly Ol’ Fox – SISC Goes One-on-One with Curt Reed

“Coach Haile didn’t cut me any slack at all, but it wasn’t just me. It didn’t matter if it was Jerry Sloan or David Lee you were expected to be at practice on time.” — Curt Reed

By Jim Muir

Dressed in a green wind suit – McLeansboro’s favorite color Kelly green of course – Curt Reed is a man in perpetual non-stop motion.

Only minutes before a scheduled SISC interview Reed entered the Hamilton County High School gymnasium in full stride carrying a handful of papers that he said (as he hurried past) he had to take to another part of the school. With the quick and sure gait of a man half his age the 66-year-old Reed vanishes out of sight but quickly returns, slapping a couple of students on the back and making small talk as he glides past.

“OK boys,” he says as he approaches the photographer, videographer and reporter never slowing his stride. “Let’s get going.”

SISC Cover from November 2008.
Photo by Ceasar Maragni

Through the storied annals of McLeansboro basketball lore you have to believe that many young men have heard that same exact sentence, perhaps not quite as mild-mannered as it was delivered on this day.

Unique, one-of-a-kind, a one-owner, contrary, tough, disciplinarian, hard-nosed, hard-headed, a cut-up, cantankerous and sly are all words that have been used to describe Reed who is set to begin his 44th season of coaching.

While Reed might be different things to different people the one constant that nobody can argue with is that he’s a winner and a coach that has the distinctive ability to demand and then extract the utmost talent from his players. The fact that he’s notched more than 700 wins in his career is testament to his coaching skill, but the fact that he’s done it oftentimes with less talent than the opposition is a testament to Curt Reed the man.

Like him or don’t like him, Curt Reed is his own man, period.

Part Macedonia grit, part homespun humorist and 100 percent McLeansboro toughness Reed is, as he phrases it, “chomping at the bit” for the 2008 round ball season to begin, his 21st as head coach at his alma mater, Hamilton County High School.

Never at a loss for a quip, a quote or a seasoned anecdote, ask Reed how he’s doing and this might be the answer you get.

“I’m doing just about like a Missouri sharecropper with a broken hoe leading a blind mule … but that’s better than a John Deere tractor in a half-acre field trying to plow a farrow lined with steel. You can’t plow steel but I can take that old, blind mule by the nose and get him from one end of that field to the other. So that old mule ain’t so bad after all.”

Translated, that means Reed is doing just fine, thank you.

Many Southern Illinois basketball purists know Reed only as the demanding, intense, sometimes glowering and oftentimes intimidating coach that prowls the sidelines of Foxes’ games. But understanding Reed’s less-than-humble beginning, the poverty, hardships and daily difficulties that he had to overcome just to get to school each day certainly provides a glimpse about why he is not at all bashful about making demands of his players and those around him.

Reed grew up dirt poor in Macedonia, a small farming community located on Route 14 between Benton and McLeansboro – 12 miles west of McLeansboro and 12 miles east of Benton. His boyhood home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity for a good portion of his high school days and his parents never owned an automobile.

Reed is quick to point out that the location of the small frame home where he grew up also played directly into his future.

“If I’d lived on the other side of the road,” Reed notes pointing to the Macedonia Road, the dividing line between Hamilton and Franklin counties “I would have been in the Benton school district and I might be wearing maroon (Benton school colors) right now.”

But, Reed lived on the Hamilton County side of that old blacktop, a stretch of road that he says he walked “a million times” and his wardrobe is predominately Kelly Green.

The house where Reed grew up as the youngest of six children is locate approximately 1-1/2 mile south of Route 14 and from that point it’s another 12 miles east to the old McLeansboro High School. In a family that had no means of transportation other than walking, that 13-1/2 mile distance must have looked like 1,000 miles many mornings for Reed as he tried to get to school during basketball season for a 7 a.m. practice.

“I’d walk that mile-and-a-half stretch on the Macedonia Road and it didn’t matter what the weather was – raining, sleeting, snowing – just to get to the highway. There was mornings when my hair was frozen,” said Reed. “And then when I’d get to the highway I’d stick my thumb out, we called it ‘thumbin’ back then, and I’d try to hitch a ride to McLeansboro and make it to practice on time. I’d be down at the highway between 5:30 and 6 o’clock in the morning and some days I’d end up walking half way there before I’d get a ride.”

Reed said there were instances when he didn’t make it to practice on time, something that drew the attention but not the sympathy of then McLeansboro Coach Gene Haile, described by Reed as “a tough disciplinarian.”

“Coach Haile didn’t cut me any slack at all, but it wasn’t just me. It didn’t matter if it was Jerry Sloan or David Lee, you were expected to be at practice on time,” said Reed. “I mean he didn’t threaten to kick me off the team or anything, but he told me there were players that were putting the time and the effort in and they were the ones that were going to play. He let me know that regardless of the situation he expected me at practice on time, period.”

Reed said that warning from his coach registered and prompted him to have his thumb out a little earlier the following morning and also provided somewhat of a Godsend.

“The very next morning I hitched a ride from a lady and I was telling her about what my coach had told me,” recalled Reed. “She told me she worked at a dress factory and came down that road every morning. She told me that if I’d be there at the highway she’d give me a ride. And from that day on she gave me a ride to practice a lot of mornings. All I know about her is that her name was Mrs. Miller … but I say God bless Mrs. Miller.”

Reed said coming up with lunch money each day was a struggle during his high school days but laughed as he explained how his competitive nature and a little innovation helped him secure a mid-day meal in the school’s cafeteria.

“Back in those days it cost 35-cents to eat lunch at school and there were many, many days that I didn’t have the 35-cents,” Reed said. “But, if I had a nickel or two I would go back behind the church with a group of boys and we’d draw a line in the dirt and pitch nickels to the line. The closest to the line got to keep all the nickels. That’s probably not very good to tell that story but it’s the truth and that’s how I ate lunch most days.”

Reed said he never felt sorry for himself but instead used the poverty he grew up in as a motivator.

“I’d have to draw water from a well and then boil it to take a bath before school, we didn’t have a television and we had an old battery operated radio we used until we got electricity,” Reed recalled. “But you know, walking that old Macedonia Road, getting your thumb out and going through those hard times made me a better man and made me appreciate what I have. I know what it’s like not to have the things you want and sometimes the things you need. I remember when I was a player and we’d finish practice and I’d see my teammates get in a car and drive off I’d think, ‘boy if I ever get a car to drive that would be the sweetest thing in the world.”

Reed was asked if he sometimes recalls the effort he had to make to get to practice when today’s players, most with their own vehicle, fail to be on time.

“I still recall Coach Haile’s comments to me that day quite frequently,” Reed said. “I’ll be honest with you, it irritates me when somebody’s late and I know they have a vehicle and live right here in town. Yeah, it gets under my skin and I do think about what I had to go through to get to practice.”

Reed makes no apologies for his tough and disciplined coaching style but quickly points out that without a support system his coaching philosophies wouldn’t be successful.

“I’ve had great support here at McLeansboro from the administration, the parents, and the fans. They’ve backed us 100 percent,” Reed said.

The longtime Foxes’ coach was asked how Curt Reed the player, the kid that hitchhiked from Macedonia to practice, would have liked to play for Curt Reed the coach, the disciplinarian and taskmaster.

“It would have been tough on Curt Reed the player,” he said. “In fact, it would have been tough on me and David Lee and Jerry Sloan when we were in high school to play for Curt Reed the coach. But, I’ll guarantee you one thing, we’d have gotten it done and we’d have gotten it done pretty good.”

Reed said players today are required to know and absorb much more than during the era when he played in the late 1950s.

“We might prepare for 20 different things that the other team is going to use and we might only use one of them. We go over every in-bounds play, every press, every offensive set that the other team will run,” said Reed. “When I played we ran three offensive plays – one, two and five. Number one was screen down, number two was screen across and number five was to clear for either David Lee or Jerry Sloan. That was it and we won using those three plays.”

A 1960 graduate of McLeansboro High School, Reed was a four-sport athlete playing basketball, baseball, football and track. Despite the fact that he lists basketball as his “first love” and has notched more than 700 wins as a coach he says football probably would have been his best opportunity in college. Reed related a humorous story about his football career that also gave more insight into the world where he grew up.

“Until I got to high school I had never even seen a football,” said Reed. “Now somebody might say, well where in the world did you grow up, but you have to remember that as a kid my world was Macedonia, we had no television, no transportation, shoot, I didn’t know where Benton was.”

Obviously, once Reed got to high school and did see a football he figured out very quickly how to run and carry the pigskin at the same time. A bruising runner at 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds, Reed scored 122 points (20 touchdowns) during his nine-game senior season.

“I could have gone further in football and I really liked track but my love was basketball, I just love basketball,” Reed said. “I remember back in the fifth grade I wrote an essay for a teacher that my ambition was to be a basketball coach. Back then I never dreamed that I would be able to do that and the only reason I did get an education and get to become a coach is because of athletics. Do you think my parents could have sent me to college? There was no way, absolutely no way. If I hadn’t gotten an athletic scholarship I’d have never been able to go to college. It’s much more than just a ball bouncing, basketball has provided me with a livelihood and with everything I have.”

Reed said despite his hardships growing up he never considered himself to be poor.

“As far as monetarily, we didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of and there’s many a time I’ve gone from the house to the outhouse and got flogged by a rooster,” Reed said. “But, I had the most precious thing a person can have, my mother’s love …so no … I was not poor.”

Reed received a basketball/football scholarship to Southern Illinois University where he played one year before transferring to McKendree College, in Lebanon, where he had a stellar career and is a member of the school’s hall of fame.

After short coaching stints at Wyanet (50 miles north of Peoria) and Tremont (near Morris) Reed returned to his roots coaching at the McLeansboro Junior High in 1975. He later became an assistant at the high school before taking over the head coaching position in 1986.

Reed listed being an assistant on the undefeated 1984 McLeansboro team, a 28-3 team in 1992 and his 1991 Foxes’ team that went 0-5 in the Benton Invitational Tournament and then finished third in state as some of his most memorable coaching experiences.

“It was just an unbelievable experience to be associated with that 35-0 team in 1984, and then as head coach, the 1991 and 1992 teams were very special to me,” Reed said.

Reed often talks about “coaching to give his team a chance to win.” He was asked to define that particular phrase and also to list the single greatest reason for his success.

“First, it’s called preparation,” said Reed. “When we go into a game we’re going to know everything that team is going to do, on in-bounds plays, press, defenses, offenses, everything they do. It’s like if you have a ‘C’ student and that student has the right preparation and goes over and over and over the material, there’s a much greater chance they’ll do better on the test. In basketball the preparation is practice and the test is the game. Focus, detail and preparation, that’s how we give ourselves a chance to win.”

Reed was asked what he enjoys most about coaching and what he enjoys least.

“I enjoy the games, there’s no question about it, but I love practice, it’s where you prepare for the test,” said Reed. “As far as what I enjoy the least, that’s easy … riding the bus. I’ve been riding buses for more than 50 years.”

While Macedonia might have been the extent of Reed’s world as a kid growing up once he bought his first car – a 1953 Ford without a heater – he quickly showed a flair for exploration.

“I worked all summer after I graduated high school for $2 an hour and finally got enough to buy that old car,” said Reed. “There was four or five of us from Southern Illinois that were going to McKendree and when I’d come home I would never go the same way back to Lebanon twice. Sometimes I’d take blacktop roads, sometimes highways and sometimes gravel roads. There are more ways to get from Macedonia to Lebanon than you can imagine. That old car didn’t have a heater and I carried a bunch of blankets in the trunk and in the winter time when you got cold you just wrapped up in a blanket.”

His coaching skills also allowed Reed to expand his boundaries even more. In 1997 Reed was hire by Tourney Sport USA to coach basketball in Hawaii and was later hired by Brigham Young University to coach a college team during the summer in China.

“I’ve been to Hawaii 10 times and to China three times,” said Reed. “If my mom and dad were alive they wouldn’t believe that.”

Entering his 44th coaching campaign in a few weeks Reed said he has not lost any of his drive or desire and said he has no plans to retire.

“If you’re coaching young men and you don’t still get excited and fired up you’re not worth your salt,” Reed said. “As far as how long I’ll coach, I’ll coach until they either fire me, I don’t enjoy it or I’m not able to do it. Right now I still get excited just talking about it, I love coaching, I love basketball and I love kids.”

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